China’s Pipeline Politics With Myanmar

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), a report on the recent visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to Myanmar aimed at strengthening Beijing’s energy security and geopolitical influence in the region.  As the article notes:

“…China-Myanmar border stability is a priority, but the primary focus of Xi’s trip is to strengthen China’s position in Southeast Asia and address the United States’ growing interests in the region. Though the United States’ recent moves toward Myanmar have been diplomatic, Beijing perceives them as a threat to Chinese energy security and geopolitical influence over the region.

China has been one of Myanmar’s few diplomatic backers since Western countries imposed broad sanctions against the military-ruled country in 1988 following a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. China has been Myanmar’s fourth-largest foreign investor, primarily in the energy sector, and depends on the country for access to the Indian Ocean. Bilateral relations, however, were strained in late August when tensions between Myanmar’s military and the Kokang ethnic minority’s militia pushed thousands of refugees past the border into China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Beijing then pressed the country to address the border stability issue, and sent People’s Liberation Army Lt. Gen. Ai Husheng to Naypyidaw from Dec. 5-10 to discuss the problem. Xi Jinping’s visit will likely include a continuation of these talks in an effort to repair bilateral relations.

Since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, Beijing has been concerned about the United States’ pledge to re-engage with Asia, particularly Washington’s intent to move closer to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China is afraid U.S. re-engagement in Southeast Asia will undermine its energy security and existing geopolitical influence over the region. As such, the most significant of the U.S. actions, from a Chinese perspective, was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell’s trip to Myanmar in early November for talks with the government and the opposition.

Campbell’s trip took place just as China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. announced Nov. 3 it would begin construction on a 480-mile oil pipeline, and later a natural gas pipeline, through Myanmar. These pipelines are part of China’s efforts to diversify its energy import routes, and to decrease the amount of oil imported through the Strait of Malacca from the South China Sea.

China’s push to expand land-based energy routes, to increase trade in Central and Southeast Asia, and to pursue seemingly expensive land-based pipeline and rail routes are all largely driven by the country’s vulnerable yet critical maritime supply lanes. China’s shifts in naval doctrine and the acceleration of development of anti-ship missiles and anti-satellite systems are also part of the same reaction. When Campbell traveled to Myanmar, what Beijing saw was not a visit to pave the way for a less contentious U.S.-ASEAN summit, but rather a concerted effort to undermine Chinese energy security.

Myanmar may have been using Beijing’s concern over the growing U.S interest for its own purposes in suggesting that natural gas pipelines to China deliver gas to Yangon first, and that a greater share of natural gas be diverted for domestic use instead of being exported. Xi’s visit is intended to better gauge what issues the United States and Myanmar discussed during Campbell’s visit in November, and lock down relations between China and Myanmar.

From a broader perspective, Beijing is worried about losing its existing advantageous position over Southeast Asia amid the United States’ re-engagement. Since the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis, China has slowly expanded its economic and political ties with the ASEAN states while Washington, since the end of the Cold War, has been less and less involved. Over the past ten years, though, many nations perceived China’s economic growth and expanding influence over the region as a potential threat to their own prosperity and growth. As such, the U.S. shift in policy toward Myanmar, and Obama’s presence at the ASEAN summit, have created a new sense of concern in China. While Washington is currently preoccupied dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Beijing does not want to see ten years of expanding influence and connections in Southeast Asia jeopardized.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 at 8:05 am and is filed under China, China National Petroleum Corporation, Myanmar.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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